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Picket in Front of Fort Mahone, Petersburg, Virginia, 1864
Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
22 x 27 inches
Signature Details: A.R. Waud
Status: Private Collection, Greenville, South Carolina

In the days before photo-journalism, it was the job of the artist-correspondent, or special artist, as he was sometimes called, to make a visual record of current events. His technique did not have to be finely honed; rather, speed of execution and accuracy were the most valuable talents a special artist could possess. A good memory was also an asset, particularly when conditions were not optimum for a making a sketch at the scene of action. Once put down on paper or directly onto the wood blocks, illustrations then had to be sped back to the publisher for inclusion in one of the weekly or monthly news magazines.

The War Between the States created an unprecedented demand for the skills of the special artist. Young men trained in the craft of engraving or drafting were employed in great numbers by the publishers of Harper's, Leslie's, the New York Illustrated News, and the London Illustrated News. Winslow Homer, though he had worked as a wood engraver for Harper's throughout the fifties, did not become famous until he was sent out in the field by them to cover several units during the war. Artists such as Homer thus left to posterity unique, first-hand documentation of major battles, minor skirmishes, and camp life on both the Confederate and Union sides.

Perhaps the single special artist who left to posterity more sketches of the War Between the States than any other was the Englishman Alfred Waud, who covered the Army of the Potomac for Harper's Weekly for most of the duration of the war. The astounding number of twenty-three hundred field sketches by him are housed in the Library of Congress, the gift to the nation of J. Pierpont Morgan.1

Born in London in 1828, Waud studied scene painting at the Schools of Design at Somerset House and the Royal Academy. At the age of twenty-two he came to New York with a letter of introduction to John Broughman, who was then building Broughman's Lyceum, but as the theater was at the time literally under construction, Waud looked for work elsewhere. In Boston he found a situation which offered him training in the art of wood engraving for periodicals. When he joined the New York Illustrated News in 1861 he was sent to Washington to cover war-related developments. He worked for them for less than a year, at which time he accepted the offer of Harper & Brothers to make drawings of hostilities for Harper's Weekly.2

That Waud was a congenial fellow, well loved by the officers and troops whose activity it was his job to cover, is attested to by the following account made by George A. Sala, a correspondent for one of the English papers who was with the Army of the Potomac in January of 1864. He wrote:

There had galloped furiously by us, backwards and forwards during our journey, a tall man, mounted on a taller horse.  Blue-eyed, fair-beared, strapping and stalwart, full of loud, cheery laughs and comic songs, armed to the teeth, jack-booted, gauntleted, slouch-hatted, yet clad in the shooting jacket of a civilian. I had puzzled myself many times during the afternoon and evening to know what manner of man this might inwardly be. He didn't look like an American; he was too well-dressed to be a guerilla. I found him out at last, and struck up an alliance with him. The fair-beared man was the `war artist' of `Harper's Weekly.'3

Mr. Sala continued his full description of the character of Alfred Waud by writing that he had been in every advance, every retreat, and that a warm welcome always awaited him in the generals' tents. He was often called upon in moments of leisure to sing songs, tell stories, and demonstrate his singular talent for imitating trumpet and bugle calls! Several of the generals offered Waud the position of aide-de-camp, which he continually turned down; in fact, he sagaciously retained his British passport throughout the War.

In 1866 Waud traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on assignment by Harper's to cover the early efforts at reconstruction. He was in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where he made many drawings of the Acadian peoples. In 1869 he left Harper's employ to work as a free-lance illustrator. His work appeared in Every Saturday as well as in Picturesque America, the lavish book edited by William Cullen Bryant which was published in the early seventies. Later Waud was involved with the Century Magazine's ambitious retrospective, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887), in rendering his own twenty-year old drawings as well as those of his late brother William, who had also been a war artist, into an engravable format. In the nineties  he turned his attention more to book illustrations, particularly text books for children. Waud never returned to England to live. He died in Marietta, Georgia, where he had gone in an attempt to improve his failing health.

Picket in Front of Fort Mahone, Petersburg, Virginia is rare for Waud's oeuvre, for he was primarily a sketch artist and seldom executed oil paintings in the studio after his sketches. It is after two on-site pencil sketches, one of which is in the collection of the Library of Congress, while the other is part of the American Heritage Century Collection of Civil War Art. Waud probably made the sketches during the summer of 1864 when the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George G. Meade, began its protracted attempt to take Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg was a particularly vital city to be in control of, for nearly all trains from points south had to pass through Petersburg before going on to Richmond, twenty-three miles to the north. Control of Petersburg thus meant that the Federals could put a stop to the flow of food, supplies, and men into the Confederate capitol.  The day that Petersburg fell the way lay open for Meade's army to take Richmond.

The painting represents a union soldier on picket duty, protected from the hot Southern sun by a canvas and wood shebang. In the background is Confederate-held Fort Mahone, which guarded the Jerusalem plank road, one of the most important arteries into Petersburg from Jerusalem (now Courtland), Virginia, to the south.

The focus on the picket in this composition brings up an interesting aspect of life for the soldier in the War Between the States. The pickets for the opposing sides were often extremely close together, geographically, and the men in such positions often became friendly with one another, sharing rations, smokes and stories. According to Waud's own notes penciled on the back of one of the sketches for this painting, the pickets often agreed between themselves to issue a warning shot when they were ordered to open fire by their superiors.4 We can be grateful to Waud for leaving to posterity this rare glimpse of "real" life for the fighting man in the War Between the States. Cynthia Seibels, 1990


1Robert Taft. "The Pictorial Record of the Old West, IX." Alfred R. Waud and Theodore R. Davis. Reprinted from The Kansas Historical Quarterly. November 1949. p. 341.

2Walter Montgomery, ed. American Art and American Art Collections. Vol. II. Boston: E. W. Walker & Co., 1889. p. 835.

3George Augustus Sala, My Diary in America in the Midst of War as quoted in Montgomery, p. 836.

4Stephen W. Sears, Ed. The American Heritage Century Collection of Civil War Art. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1974. p. 313.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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